Although the messengers from heaven met Okuninushi at Inasa-no-Hama beach, the rush to go ask his son Kotoshironushi for the land, and Kotoshironushi’s relinquishing of it is celebrated every year in two rituals at Miho Shrine, home to Kotoshironushi, also popularly known as Ebisu.

Both rituals bring together the whole neighborhood and draw crowds from around the area, and the entire process goes on for hours, including purification rites for the people taking roles and kagura dances performed by the miko (shrine maidens).

Morotabune Shinji is celebrated every December 3rd, and reenacts the rush to the shrine with two boats of lightly dressed men racing each other around the harbor and liberally splashing water on each other with their oars. Yes, the water and weather are both very cold. However, I am told that the men taking part are so absorbed in the moment that they don’t notice the biting cold.

The other is Aofushigaki Shinji, on April 7th. The 7th of every month is a holy day for Miho Shrine, with their treasure storehouse only open on the 7th day of the month, with a few items on display each time it is open. The April 7th ritual reenacts how Kotoshironushi hid himself in the bushes and the water after agreeing to hand over the lands. While this is not necessarily a suicide, it is thought of as a sort of rebirth, and there are many somber elements of the ritual that take place before the boats are even involved. A number of roles are performed by community members which require the adults and children involved to eat special food, or be lead blindly, or not be allowed to have their feet touch the ground, and the majority of other people involved guide, carry, or form chains around the processing members to keep them out of reach of the onlookers. It makes for a rather mysterious atmosphere.


If you’re familiar with theater styles of the world, perhaps you are familiar with kabuki. If you’re familiar with kabuki, perhaps you’re already familiar with its founder, Izumo-no-Okuni (1571~??). Not only is she the mother of Japan’s first form of pop-culture drama, but she lead a fairly dramatic life herself.

A brief survey of popular culture in Japan reveals that although folk culture did exist and change throughout the ages, it was the high culture of the elites that defined the tastes of the ages. In the Warring States period when samurai had to mentally and spiritually prepare themselves for death at any moment, the ritualistic Noh plays were the height of theater. No one could really expect the common riffraff to appreciate such a refined art, though. Not that commoners’ opinions were worth much to begin with.

In that day and age, it was common for shrines and temples around the country to send priests, nuns, monks, and shrine maidens to the capital to solicit donations. With religious dance being the heart of performance culture at the time, a beautiful shrine maiden–the daughter of a local blacksmith–was chosen to leave her duties at Izumo Taisha to solicit donations in Kyoto.

It was supposed to be a brief trip, but for whatever reason, she decided to ignore the call to return home. Rebellious and pleased with the large crowds her dances drew, perhaps? Or maybe by that time she had already met her lover and emotional, creative, and financial partner, Ujisato Sanzaburo? (Please read Lafcadio Hearn’s account of her story if you want a more romantic retelling.)

Whatever the case, she shirked her shrine duties (though continued to send money, it seems) and remained in Kyoto, performing in the dry riverbeds and recruiting women–often social outcasts–to perform with her. Graceful though her religious dances were known to be, she introduced very flamboyant, exaggerated, and provocative dances to the populous, and she grew famous throughout the country. She was especially well known for her performance in male roles.

Her humorous and dramatic performances were both loved and loathed by common people and those of high status alike. Part of what makes Kabuki interesting as a form of theater is that it started as a low-class form of entertainment for the masses, and during the Edo period it was the common peoples’ tastes than had the most influence on the artistic movements of the era. This was the start of Japanese consumer culture! What’s more, it was frowned upon for the dignified warrior class to engage in these popular forms of entertainment, but they frequently became regular patrons of kabuki anyway.

She was so famous and her troupe had such an influence on the tastes of the masses that soon brothels wouldn’t hire just any pretty women–they had to be talented in outlandish singing, dancing, and acting, too! Following Izumo-no-Okuni’s retirement and disappearance from the public eye, the newly established Tokugawa government would no longer tolerate this crazed form of mass entertainment corroding public morals. Women putting themselves on such gaudy display was too scandalous! Thus, women were banned from the stage. Kabuki theater was already so well-established by that point that it didn’t disappear, it merely replaced the womens’ roles with young boys (similar to what Shakespeare was working with). That was also problematic in a moral sense, so eventually the stage was limited to grown men as actors specializing in specific characters types. Contrary–or quite similar to–Okuni’s popularity in her male roles, the onnagata (female role) performers are often among the most famous and most popular actors. (Remember good old Metora-san?)

Today, kabuki is considered a high form of art that is thought to require some amount of sophistication to appreciate (400 years ago, who would have expected that?), and quite some sum of money to view live. I still have yet to see more than video clips of it, but exposure to kabuki (and its founding story) a number of years ago was, in a sense, the first I had ever heard of the Izumo region. How much longer Izumo-no-Okuni lived after retiring is a mystery, but it seems she returned home to her old neighborhood. It may surprise people just how easy it is to pay their respects to her on a typical visit to the shrine, which I’ll explain in my next entry.

Following up the previous post about the first shrine and temple visits of the new year, this is a report on my visit to Kamosu Shrine.

Not that it looked like this when I visited at night. Thanks, Wiki!

Kamosu Shrine (an Izanami shrine–and one that the people of Matsue are most proud of) is the oldest shrine with Taisha-tsukuri architecture, which is particularly known for its roof design unlike that of the curved roofs of temples borrowed from Chinese style. Like most Shinto shrines, it is not just one shrine–rather, many little houses for different Kami, with a primarily one facing the entrance of the shrine. Vistors don’t enter them, but instead stand in front and peer in from windows or doors, if they happen to be open. Furthermore, the main focal point for the offerings isn’t even the true shrine itself. Instead, the main shrine (the honden) is behind this room and elevated. Kamosu’s honden is a National Treasure.

One of the key points about Taisha-tsukuri shrines is that based on the angle of the ends of the crossed sections on top, you can tell whether the diety being honored is male or female. That doesn’t make much sense in words, so take a look at a couple of the smaller shrines within Kamosu:

Click to follow to photo source and more photos of Kamosu Shrine (Japanese)

After watching the end of Kouhaku Uta Gassen–the biggest musical event of the year, over 4 hours of popular performers in a men-versus-women singing competition–and bringing in the new year with soba noodles and watching the ringing of the joyonokane on TV (a Buddhist ritual to cleanse humanity of the 108 sins and temptations), we set out at around 12:30am on January 1st to do our visit. It was like shrine visits any other time of the year–rinsing your hands before entering, tossing money before the kami, then praying in the bow-twice-clap-twice-wishful-thinking-bow-again style, and repeating the process at any of the smaller kami houses throughout the shrine.

Here's a little of my pocket money. Now can I get rich this year, please?

Also like any other time of the year, you can buy o-mamori (good luck charms and talismans) and draw omikuji fortunes, but the ones being sold at New Years are new, and many people return the previous year’s good luck charms so they can be burned.

Time to pick out this year's omamori...

Nevertheless, heavy emphasis is placed on many firsts of the year, and the visit felt special. It helped that the weather created a certain mood–it was a windless night with slowly falling snow, the moonlight was hazy, and the features of the shrine seemed to glow under a light layer of snow. Unlike larger shrines around Japan that were packed with people even at midnight, Kamosu was nearly silent. Even the miko (shrine maidens) offering New Years amazake (sweet rice wine) moved silently with sweet smiles, and spoke in soft voices like whispers.

Would you care for some sake and brown rice?

Oh, but this was different. Brown rice was being offered with the sake? We asked the miko what the significance of this was, and their pleasant atmosphere seemed to shatter into confusion. These miko probably had no idea why they were serving rice–after all, contrary to what popular culture might lead one to believe about the fine upbringing of holy maidens, these girls were most likely high schoolers who took on a part time job for the New Year season.

After our brief visit, we took a drive over to the Tamazukuri Onsen area to take a 1am visit to the outdoor ashiyu (hot spring foot bath) as the snowfall gotten thicker. We stayed under a covered roof for this visit, but it’ll be nice to go back when the weather is warmer to use the ashiyu in the stream! This was my first time at trying out the waters at Tamatsukuri, which are said to have some of the best minerals for your skin in all of Japan (on that note, according to POLA research done last year, Shimane is the best prefecture in Japan for beautiful skin!).

Our local hot springs--highly recommended!

Today is my first day back at work, but the season of firsts will still go on until about January 15th or so. I still have time to write another entry about my other firsts of the year and how else I celebrated Japan’s most important holiday of the year!